Natural Born Targeters

In a nutshell, everything I do with my horses is summed up by three, very scientific words:

What Feels Better?

At the heart of that phrase are two other important words. Association and motivation. For instance, if my horses associate me with something that feels good, they’ll be more motivated to pay attention to me, to be with me, to trust me. If they associate me with something that feels bad, you can bet I’ll see all sorts of things that make me feel bad. Like the hind end of a horse as it runs away from me, or the pinning of ears, or the flying of hooves, or the throwing of me off its back.

Consider the example of the eyebrow in my What is Pressure page? It wasn’t the eyebrow that made the horse move. It was its association, or correlation, with the chain of events that led to the eyebrow making the horse move.

The big distinction I want to make here is that I want the horse to decide that I am something good through a very direct route. I don’t want to have to make the horse feel bad, only then to make it feel better by eliminating what I was doing to make it feel bad in the first place. To me this is very indirect, creates learned helplessness and is not a solid foundation of a trusting relationship. To me it feels like a fear or pressure based trust. My mind can’t wrap around that one.

The great thing is that there is an option, a very easy option, that works really well. It’s called motivating the horse with what feels good, not with what feels bad.

So what feels good to a horse?

Foal’s Eye View
Let’s ask a foal whose spindly little legs have just touched down on terra firma. We’ll get a glimpse at a horse’s very first association of life on earth. He squints his eyes and wrinkles his nose as he gets his bearings. Fortunately for him (unlike his domestic counter parts, dogs and cats) he born ready to roll.

While he’s unfurling his legs about to take a test drive with his mama, new born kittens in the barn are blindly creeping and crawling about like defenseless worms. But that’s okay, because Mama barn cat is a predator, more than able to protect her kittens with her ample claws and sharp fangs until her litter can fend for themselves.

Our newborn foal quickly realizes that to survive it needs to stick close to Mama. Survival is hinged on its ability to follow or target a moving object. Why? At this stage, Mama is the source of all good things such as food, warmth, security and companionship. Horses are natural born targeters. They have to be or they’ll be dinner. Mama has no fangs.

If foals had a lesson plan, it might look something like this:

Lesson 1
Following mama tastes good.

Lesson 2
Each time I walk up to my mama,
something good happens.

Something the foal does earns it something it wants.

As the foal matures, even during weaning, the mare often just walks away, rather than kicking her beautiful weanling in the head to tell it, “Enough!”

In the wild the herd replaces mama for security and companionship. Except for the occasional squabbles over resources such as which stallion gets which mare, or who gets the best pile of grass, most of the day is spent peacefully moving towards what they want, towards things that feel good. Water, shade, grass, a buddy to scratch a back.

In my mind any time a horse is moving toward what it wants, it’s targeting. I think a horse feels good when its targeting. I bet it feels better for a horse to target than it does to move away from pressure.

And that, in a nutshell, is my experiment:

How many ways can I work with my horses by motivating them with what feels good, not with what feels bad (or even irritating)? By opening up to my horses’ natural abitlity to target, I hit the bullseye almost every time.



2 thoughts on “Natural Born Targeters

  1. What a lovely, lovely site! Keep up the good work-can’t wait to read more and try your techniques on my off the track thoroughbred mare, Dancer.

  2. “I bet it feels better for a horse to target than it does to move away from pressure.”

    How interesting!

    I’ve never thought about the towards or away from question in quite this way before.

    I’ve watched videos of people teaching bridleless rein cues before. The Parelli and “natural horsemanship” people wave a stick at the side of the horse’s neck/face, until he learns that to get rid of the annoying stick, he can turn.

    The positive trainers and clicker trainers teach bridleless rein cues by using their target stick.

    Doesn’t take much to figure out which is probably more enjoyable for the horse.

    I find that my horses naturally want to target everything. It’s almost like their nose is their hand, and in the way I’d pick something up to see what it is, they go over and sniff it, nudge it with their nose.

    I had a mare last week decide she wasn’t too sure about a new wheelbarrow. We circled it several times while she got a good look, and eventually she got close enough to touch it. Then she wanted to touch it all over with her nose, sniff it, mouth it, nudge it. She was still hesitant during this process, and would occasionally take a step back, but her curiosity for wanting to touch the object was far greater than her fear.


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